Since El-Sisi, as the army chief, pushed his predecessor, Mohamed Mursi, from office in 2013, thousands of Egyptians have died in political violence. At least 20,000, mostly members or supporters of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, have been arrested and hundreds have been sentenced to death in mass trials. Mursi himself was condemned to death in May in connection with a prison break, in which he escaped confinement, during the 2011 uprising. The Brotherhood, which won every regional and national election between 2011 and El-Sisi’s ascent, has been labeled terrorist and banned. After nine Brotherhood members were killed in a raid on a Cairo apartment in July, the group openly called for rebellion. Militants, including some allied with Islamic State, have been increasingly active in Egypt. The government is eager to restore the relative calm it enjoyed initially, which produced some signs of economic recovery. Still, Egypt remains reliant on aid from Gulf Arab states. They are eager to see El-Sisi succeed against the Brotherhood, which they also see as a threat. In October, low turnout in the first round of voting for Egypt’s parliament, which was dissolved by the highest court in 2012, suggested the election would not bring the political stability El-Sisi has said is necessary to restore investor confidence.
Military leaders have shaped Egypt’s history for more than 3,000 years. The army commander Horemheb quelled strife after the child-pharaoh Tutankhamen died in 1322 BC with no successor; a military junta then ruled for 13 generations. Slave soldiers known as Mamluks arrived in the early 1250s and created political, social and economic networks over a 500-year rule. Egypt stagnated under British rule. After independence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a general, sought to re-establish the country’s eminence, nationalizing the Suez Canal and leading Arabs in wars against Israel. As Egypt’s ruling general in 1978, Anwar Sadat signed a U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel. His successor, Mubarak, an air force commander, survived an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, though his regime became ossified and wealth failed to trickle down to ordinary citizens. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation, and half its 85 million people are under the age of 25. The military controls large segments of the economy — with commercial interests from food manufacturing to real estate.
El-Sisi’s supporters say he rescued Egypt from Islamists more interested in promoting their interests than the national good. They point to the deadly turmoil in nearby Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen as evidence of what otherwise might have happened in Egypt. Critics say El-Sisi has quashed Egypt’s shot at democracy. They argue that by conflating moderate Islamists with violent extremists, his regime’s indiscriminate crackdown only radicalizes the former. And with its deep roots in Egyptian society, the Muslim Brotherhood is not going away. While many of Egypt’s allies — including Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Israel and Russia — have embraced the regime’s position that its actions are necessary for stability, some are conflicted. The U.S. in 2013 began suspending some of its military assistance, which averages $1.3 billion annually, in an effort to prod the country toward democracy. In March 2015, the U.S. agreed to make good on its full commitments but stipulated that in the future Egypt will no longer be able to buy U.S. military equipment on credit.